BLUE LADIES by Bettz Burr


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First-novelist Burr builds this talented but rather uncoordinated Manhattan fiction around 40-year-old Anita Caswell: an attractive, insecure ex-Southern belle who's now an underfinanced divorcee (her lawyer-hubby wangled a ridiculous settlement) with an itchy teenage daughter and a PR/fundraising job at the very low-profile Gilkey Museum on upper, slum-surrounded Fifth Avenue. Anita's status quo is tenable but pretty wan, especially in summer--when daughter Emma visits her father, when sometime lover Stanley (a record producer) is on the road, when dim museum-director Dr. Patrick is away and the museum ladies get on each other's nerves, even Anita's pals: young, blond, ambitious Barrie and frazzled bookkeeper Catherine (another divorcee). But everything changes when Anita is summoned to the bedside of Pauline Birge, who has decided to give the vast Birge modern-art collection (senile Mr. B. is in an asylum) to the little Gilkey! Why? Because archaeologist Pauline was long ago cheated of her rightful fame by wormy Dr. Patrick, and she knows that this huge gift (made while he's on vacation) will throw him into the spotlight and expose his incompetence. Anita and Barrie quite happily and knowingly go along with this plot, aided by Pauline's plastic socialite daughter Janice. But soon the sudden big-time produces tensions: Anita/Barrie rivalry over press exposure; problems of housing and administering the collection; Dr. Patrick's panic; the Board's paralysis (""just getting a punch recipe approved takes five weeks around here""); plus total takeover by Janice and her chic crew. And Anita's personal life is equally fraught: angry scenes with Emma (who's trying a teen-modeling career); a one-nighter with Janice's lover Hank, then a slow-burning affair with Hank's gorgeous 21-year-old son; and hardwon but satisfying friendship with tough old Pauline. Finally, as the Big Opening of the new collection approaches, penniless and pressurized Catherine kills herself and her two kids--and Anita, fed up, insults some Japanese corporate funders, rebelliously rearranges the Opening Night dÉcor, and plans a fun career in landscape design. Sounds like a surfeit of crises and climaxes? That's just what it is: with limited skills, Burr tackles too many problematic characters while letting the overall tone stray between quietly serious and fancifully satiric. As a result, much here seems glib or contrived, and Anita is never as convincing as she might have been with a cleaner focus. Still, the mom-daughter spats are jaw-bone real, the museum mustiness is well-done, and most of the scenes are crisply shrewd. A promising debut, then, which--despite its flaws-may thoroughly please those with a weakness for museum atmosphere and/or the Divorcee-Builds-New-Life genre.

Pub Date: June 23rd, 1980
Publisher: Seaview--dist. by Harper & Row